Dispatches from Arles 2014: the highs and lows

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The opening week of the 45th Les Rencontres d’Arles festival has come to a close, but the 50-plus exhibitions continue until 21 September, so there is plenty of time to check out what outgoing director François Hebel has programmed for his final edition.

As some commentators have argued, this year’s programme feels slighter than in previous years, and there is little doubt that feelings towards its success are mixed.

At the FT, photography critic Francis Hodgson detects a hesitancy as Arles ponders its future. Hebel is departing for pastures new after overseeing 15 editions, as Sam Stourdzé, former director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland waits in the wings to take his place.

Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian also notes that this is a pivotal year, and comments that the festival, the theme of which is ‘Parade’, is “less surprising” than in previous years. L’Oeil de la Photographie writes the festival off completely.


For me, it was a mixed bag with both disappointments and a few gems. Exhibitions such as David Bailey’s Stardust, on tour after a stint at the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this year, seemed misplaced, and the execution of others such as Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren’s The Chinese Photobook, which was housed in a severe-looking industrial office block along Boulevard des Lices, fell short of expectations. Every room was drenched in intense red light, and visitors were given torches to view the hundreds of photobooks on display, some dating back to 1900, many of which were beautifully and intricately decorated. But it was difficult to see the detail in the gloom and looking at the books in this way was an exhausting, overwhelming experience. It was nice to see work by contemporary artists Ren Hang and Thomas Sauvin included in the show – their photography offered a breath of fresh air among the seemingly endless displays of very interesting but intense propaganda books.

American collector WM Hunt’s exhibition of crowd photographs from his collection has been widely praised, but in my opinion it lacked sparkle and featured too many images for it to be possible to take them in comprehensively; it was impossible to fault the breadth and range of material, however.

Elsewhere, Raymond Depardon’s large-scale photographs of war memorials in French villages were nice, if a little underwhelming, but it was a side exhibition of fellow French photographer Léon Gimpel’s autochrome and black-and-white photographs of children play-acting war scenes from 1915 that remained in my mind.

One of the most noticeable differences to last year’s festival is the smaller number of ‘sheds’ in use in the Parc des Ateliers, which is being taken over and redeveloped by Maja Hoffmann and her Luma Foundation (a new Frank Gehry designed art gallery will take its place in 2018).

Here, the photobooks exhibition was as sprawling and brilliant as ever, and the 10 photographer-strong Discovery Award show featured a few notable bodies of work – Will Steacy and his images of the ailing newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, work by the late Korean photographer, Youngsoo Han, and Israeli photographer Ilit Azoulay stood out especially.

Across the way, collector and curator Erik Kessels did a fantastic job of bringing together nine pioneering Dutch artists in his exhibition, Small Universe, which included Hans Eijkelboom, Hans van der Meer and rising star Maurice van Es.

But for me, of most interest was what was going on outside of the main programme. Hidden away off the Boulevard des Lices was the bustling Cosmos, a space managed by Le Bal’s Sébastian Hau and artist Olivier Cablat, which served as a photobook hub and featured a strong quota of contemporary cutting-edge indie publishers, including the likes of Mörel Books, Here Press and Dalpine, among many others. It was also where BJP held its celebration of Spanish photography with Amparo Escobedo of www.amparophotogs.com, and photographers Ricardo Cases, Fosi Vegue and David Hornillos, all of whom feature in our Spanish themed July issue, and who were signing copies of their books on the Thursday evening.

Recommendations for the MYOP group show on Rue de la Calade came thick and fast, and I was not disappointed by what I saw. Extending across several floors in a charming old house, the exhibition features some fantastic work by the French photographers’ collective, most notably Ed Alcock’s moving Hobbledehoy, which traces the intimate relationship between a mother (his wife) and son.

Most of all, the festival was as alive with parties as ever, and remains a great place to network and to catch up with friends in the industry. While Hebel’s last Rencontres d’Arles festival may not have had the drama many had hoped for, it is not the wash-out some are claiming it is. After 45 years, the festival enters new waters, and eyes remain fixed on the new direction it will take.

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